What is emotional health is something that is difficult to pin down. I read countless books on parenting and emotions and it was difficult for me. Especially difficult is when some of the books proved to make my situation worse (did I not understand the advice? was it wrong?)
But lately I’ve been killing it when it comes to emotional health. What I’ve learned and how I’ve *had* to apply it has helped me in what is probably the most trying time of my life. We recently moved to a city, while I was pregnant, and I deal with a number of health problems. Being able to deal with big emotions, frustrations, worry about the future, and of course, my 3 children, has given me new insight. I will still preface this with this is my growth so far.
I would define emotional health as such: An ability to identify what you are feeling, an ability to express it in a non-aggressive way, congruent to the intensity of the feeling, and to embrace it as valid and right–except when the feeling you are feeling is to lash out in some way. This is still a valid feeling, but in this situation, your job as the responsible adult is to calm the feeling down such that you hurt no one.
The skill of all skills to have is an ability to identify your feelings. This is so crucial–and yet, so many have been educated out of having feelings, often being told to always just be happy. I read once that people who were verbally abused cannot differentiate the painful feelings inside of them. Guilt, fear, pain, worry, embarrassment all just bubble up into one big terrible emotion, whose end result is crippling self doubt. Being able to surf these big emotions allows you to deal with them–most of all, to take the sting out of them.
I would recommend Dr. Tsabary’s work as the best work for understanding emotional health. I read The Awakened Family. The main point of her book is to become conscious of your emotion whenever you feel triggered or want to lash out. Just becoming conscious of what it is allows you to handle any situation better. I once went to yell at my son, who attacked my daughter, over a toy dispute. Yelling is a form of lashing out–and not how I want to be as a parent. I asked myself what I was feeling. It was “A preschool would have this under control. I am failing as a home school mom.” My thought was not true; fights still break out in schools. But just identifying my emotion of guilt allowed me to handle the situation better. I asked if that was the emotion I wanted to operate on. The answer was no. I handled that situation like a pro. I’ve handled many, many other situations since then like a pro, even with 3 children, always by simply asking, “what am I feeling? is that emotion the one I want to operate on?”
Dr. Tsabary differentiates feelings from emotions. A feeling is something you feel and you just sit with. An emotion (“motion”) is something that drives you to act.
Dr. Gordon is the author of Parent Effectiveness Training. He describes a model within families that is negotiation based rather than authoritarian based, which has jaw dropping results. He describes how when you have a problem, you should bring it up with a well constructed 3-part I statement, stating 1) the offending behavior 2) how you feel about it 3) why.
However, Dr. Gordon makes an exception for anger. He says you should not express anger, because stating, “I feel angry” comes across always as “You are making me angry.” I would propose that this fits in well with my statement above about emotional health. Except, instead of “anger,” I would say it is any emotion at all that might drive you to lash out. Any time you want to hurt anyone, you should pause. Some examples might include wanting to yell or even hit someone, such as your children; a desire to break off a relationship, especially a committed one that you are in; a desire to insult or hurt someone with words. In these times, it is time for self reflection, before speaking.
Dr. Gordon says there is usually a feeling underneath anger. The Gottman Institute says this too, and has published a popular meme of an iceberg about it. When your child comes home late, you get angry at the child, but the underlying emotion is actually worry. How much more effective it is to say, “You made me so worried when you were out late!” The goal is to get to the underlying emotion.
I have actually learned to love this underlying feeling. When I have terrible feelings of anger or frustration–which happen when you’ve had night after night of interrupted and limited sleep while dealing with small children–I make myself sit with the feeling. I find that the underlying feeling is often one of sadness, worry, or sometimes guilt. It is entirely possible that the feeling is just one of physical drain of some sort. Whatever it is; identifying it is powerful. Psychologists, such as Dr. Siegel, call it “Name it to tame it.” When I realize that it’s just sadness, I let myself be sad. Sadness calls on us to slow down, think, connect. It’s nice to admit you are sad and to say to someone, “I’m sad.” Now you can work towards solving it. It’s nice to do this while having a cup of coffee or embraced in a hug. Name it to tame it takes the sting out of it. I have also learned that these feelings will pass.
All of this has such enormous application in many other areas. This is the model I use to emotion coach my kids. I could not be more proud of how they handle conflict.
Follow me on facebook, The Observant Mom.